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Ending It, in Paternia

In the Republic of Paternia there has, of late, been a vigorous debate on the question of whether the law should change to permit marital separation in some circumstances. Some desperate Paternian couples have been illegally travelling abroad to engage in marital separations in Switterland (where they are permitted for now, though the Switts are becoming uncomfortable with their country’s renown for so-called “separation tourism”). Some of these couples have been dragged through the Paternian courts on their return. Sympathetic juries have often chosen to acquit, recognizing that their situations had become unbearable, that they had separated consensually, and that legal enforcement of their cohabiting marital relationship would only have prolonged their suffering. Moreover, prosecutors in Paternia have for a long time only selectively prosecuted cases of marital separation that illegally took place abroad.

In an attempt to clarify matters, the Director of Paternian Prosecutions (DPP) last year outlined a number of “factors that would be taken into account” in determining whether prosecutions for marital separation would be brought by the state. But the DPP’s action failed to really satisfy either side of the debate. Proponents of marital separation remained unhappy because the DPP’s ambiguous guidance left it illegal, and still vulnerable to arbitrary prosecution. Opponents were unhappy because, as they see it, the DPP undemocratically weakened the legal protection for marriage without any proper legislation.

Progressive interest groups such as the Switt marital separation group Singularitas, and some members of the governing Progressive Party, argue that marital separation should be legally permitted, when both parties consent and there are good grounds for it. These grounds would include irretrievable breakdown of the marriage as a result of adultery or of persistent unreasonable behaviour like excessive drinking or financial extravagance. There is widespread popular support for such a change because most couples want to control their fate, and to be able to choose to end their own marital relationship should its condition ever become intolerable to them. Progressive Paternians think that it is a human right for people to be allowed to make choices they earnestly and reasonably want to make to end their marital relationships, and they find it scandalous that suffering Paternians are forced to go all the way to Switterland to find relief. They say that those who oppose marital separations in the name of the “sanctity of marriage” fail to realize that it is not the mere length of a marital relationship that matters, but also its quality. They regard supporters of the ban on marital separation as engaged in callous and inhumane interference in people’s most private and personal life-decisions.

The opponents of repealing the ban in Paternia, on the other hand, include most members of the opposition Conservative Party and also interest groups like Care Not Cleaving (who describe themselves as “a broad pro-marriage alliance made up of marital counselling organizations, feminist groups, married people, and religious bodies”). Even if many members of the conservative alliance are motivated by controversial religious or moral views about the sanctity of marriage, they try to couch their arguments to the mainstream press in more effective, secular liberal terms. The conservatives argue that Paternia’s ban on marital separation must be maintained in order to promote more and better marital counselling, and to protect vulnerable individuals. They say that the law as it stands unambiguously bans marital separation for very good reasons. In Paternia it is socially unthinkable for anyone to remarry under any circumstances whatsoever, so a marital separation would always put a final end to a person’s marital opportunities. Moreover, if marital separation were legalized, conservatives say, it would be all too easy for vulnerable spouses (and especially those most vulnerable women who are in apparently unhappy marriages) to be pressured into getting a marital separation that they do not really want. These vulnerable individuals could be pressured into separation not only by their spouses, but also by abusive family members and friends. Even without the interference of others, some may feel pressured into getting a separation by their own feelings of guilt at the (real or imagined) burdens they place on their friends and families when their marriage pressures impinge on them. Conservatives recognize that the tide of popular opinion is running against them on the issue, but argue that if there must be any legal lenience for a de facto marital separation, it should be given on an individual basis and only after a thorough examination of the particular case within the court system.

Paternian conservatives also offer additional arguments against changing the law. We know, they say, that some people would make mistakes if permitted – by separating, they would destroy their marriages when they are just experiencing a rough patch and otherwise would have turned out to be long, happy, fulfilling relationships. The conservatives doubt that anyone can ever judge, or even has a right to judge, when a marriage has “irretrievably” broken down. “In any case,” they say, “we reject the view that some marriages are worth less than others: we believe that nobody should be the victim of a stigma just because they happen to be a spouse in an unhappy marriage.” These claims are reinforced by anecdotal evidence: various conservative couples are willing to attest that they might have separated in the past if given the opportunity, but that they have now come to see their marital relationships as enormously fulfilling and valuable. Other conservative couples whose marriage circumstances look from the outside to be terribly miserable say that they still value their own marriages greatly, and don’t want anyone else deciding that their marriages are not worthwhile and should be ended. Finally, conservatives point to recent advances in marital counselling, arguing that with modern therapeutic techniques and especially with modern anti-depressive drugs, people need not endure the degree of suffering and emotional pain in their less-than-perfect marriages that they might once have been subject to. Conservatives say that legalizing marital separation would provide an illusory “easy option”: it would result in society putting less than maximal effort into providing the best possible marital counselling, and it would undermine and devalue everyone’s marriages as a result.

Will Paternian progressives and conservatives be able to reach agreement? Who knows? The Paternian conservatives seem quite stubbornly convinced by their arguments. Still, let us be optimists! Maybe one day the Paternians will hear of the early 21st century debate in the UK about legalizing assisted suicide, and perhaps they will find in it some analogy that will help them to reach common ground.

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4 Comment on this post

  1. Very clever post. Of course, separated couples can always remarry, but dead people can’t similarly reverse their death. One of the arguments against assisted suicide is that it may be murder, not assisted suicide. Another is that the person requesting death has had his or her weakening will to live overridden by a person in whom the suicider-to-be has reposed substantial trust. Of course, there are formal safeguards against these possibilities. But death is still a far more serious matter than divorce.

  2. Thanks Dennis! Remarrying or reuniting in Paternia is never possible, of course 🙂 Paternian conservatives would, I’m sure, be greatly offended at your suggestion that marital separation might not be as serious as ANYTHING else. Of course, we need not agree with them, since we seem to think that people can (in certain circumstances) reasonably decide for themselves that their marital relationship is simply not worth continuing. It seems pretty obvious that we’d still think this even if reuniting or remarrying were impossible over here just as it is in Paternia.

    (By the way: I perhaps forgot to mention that Paternians call intentially causing someone’s marital separation against their will “durder”, and it’s one of their most serious crimes. Paternian conservatives doubt that the thin line between durder and voluntary marital separation can be maintained in cases where a vulnerable individual is persuaded into making their decision by someone they trust.)

  3. I’m not sure what this post is supposed to show. As Dennis points out, death and divorce are different, in ways that are morally significant. Simply deciding to substitute the words “divorce” for “assisited suicide” doesn’t say anything meaningful about the validity or invalidity of the arguments in their original context. If you had instead substituted “having sex with children” for “assisted suicide,” would your post have then become a valid argument against assisted suicide?

  4. A H:

    > I’m not sure what this post is supposed to show … Simply deciding to substitute the words “divorce” for “assisted suicide” doesn’t say anything meaningful about the validity or invalidity of the arguments in their original context.

    That’s not what I did. But more importantly: The post is an allegory, or fable. You’re invited to question your ordinary mode of thinking about the issue by invoking a different mode, and a different set of connections and associations.

    > As Dennis points out, death and divorce are different, in ways that are morally significant.

    Maybe if you capitalized the words “different” and “morally significant”, your attempted refutation would be more convincing?
    But seriously, I can’t force you to accept the invitation. But I have invited you to question and to justify the distinction you are accustomed to making.

    > If you had instead substituted “having sex with children” for “assisted suicide,” would your post have then become a valid argument against assisted suicide?

    No, of course not. I don’t want to point out the blatantly obvious, but “having sex with children” most obviously involves, uh, children, and not just consenting adults.

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